Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Civil War Roots of Santa Claus

Let others debate whether Santa Claus is white or not. There’s no debate that the definitive American Santa is political cartoonist Thomas Nast’s Merry Old Santa Claus (detail shown above) from the New Year’s Day 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly. If it looks a lot like the picture in your head from Clement Clarke Moore’s "The Night Before Christmas," you’re right—Nast borrowed heavily from 1823 poem and its “cheeks… like roses,” “nose like a cherry,” etc. But that wasn’t Nast’s first crack at depicting Old Saint Nick. Nast actually first drew Santa for the American public in 1863, during the midst of the American Civil War. In these sesquicentennial years of the War Between the States, it’s important to also remember the smaller sesquicentennials, such as this anniversary of the beginning of what we now “know” Santa to look like. Black or white, fat or thin—Santa and his Civil War roots say as much about the circumstances of his origins as about what he and the holiday mean today. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "The Civil War Roots of Santa Claus."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Vivian Maier and the Hidden History of Women's Photography

Vivian Maier took about 150,000 pictures during her lifetime, but never showed a single one to another living soul. When she died in April 2009, Vivian was remembered as a beloved nanny by the then-grown children who rescued her from homelessness and took care of her in her later years. Maier’s collection of negatives (most of which were never printed) was already being scattered to the winds after she failed to pay rent on her storage unit two years earlier. Thanks to filmmaker and street photographer John Maloof, who bought some of the negatives while researching another project, Vivian Maier’s photographs have been seen for the first time by the public and recognized as some of the finest street images taken by an American photographer, male or female, of the 20th century. In Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits, Maloof continues the rediscovery of Maier’s work, but this time focusing on her unique, enigmatic self-portraits. Vivian Maier’s story is more than just the story of a single, almost-lost photographer, but also the story of the hidden history of women’sphotography and women’s art itself. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Vivian Maier and the Hidden History of Women's Photography."

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Why Silent Film Stills Still Fascinate Us

Fewer than 14% of American silent films still exist today in complete form according to “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929,” a recent Library of Congress report by film historian David Pierce. All we know today of the vast majority of those lost films are either tantalizing fragments of footage or the still photographs taken to advertise and promote the movies and their stars. Looking at those still photographs now reminds us of whole worlds and personalities lost to time. David S. ShieldsStill: American Silent Motion Picture Photography masterfully recreates and celebrates a genre of photography originally intended as a marketing tool but today recognized for its own artistry, separate from but still related to the films and actors it saves from the dustbin of history. “Photography preserved what was most vivid and splendid about silent cinema, the unprecedented visual elaboration of places and people—the beauty, the horror, the moodiness,” Shields writes in rebuttal to modern viewers bored by the perceived limitations of the silent films. Silent film stills, Shields believes, “speak with a force little diminished by ninety years of history.” Shields, likewise, speaks with a force powered not just by his passion for and knowledge of the field, but also by sharing the stage with the work itself in his beautifully illustrated book. By its end, Still reminds us why silent film stills still fascinate us. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Why Silent Film Stills Still Fascinate Us."

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Are Tech Giants' Offices the Cathedrals of the Future?

On October 15, 2013, the City Council of Cupertino, California, debated for 6 hours before finally approving Apple’s plans for a new $5 billion USD office headquarters to be built in their city. Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs approved architect Norman Foster’s design (shown above) just weeks before his death in 2011. Work on the mammoth “mother ship” begins next year and is scheduled to be finished sometime in 2016. For a company that likes to “think different,” this architectural thinking looks more like old
school thinking to me, specifically the kind of “bigger is better” mentality that spawned the building of massive cathedrals throughout Europe for centuries. Whereas the old churches rose in worship of the old gods, these new churches rise up in worship of the new tech corporate gods. Are the tech giants’ offices the cathedrals of the future? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Are Tech Giants' Offices the Cathedrals of the Future?"

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Is the U.S.'s Vermeer Invasion Too Much of a Good Thing?

The last foreign military invasion of the United States (which included the burning of the White House) took place two centuries ago. Half a century ago, a different kind of British Invasion brought us the Beatles and the Stones. This year, America faces yet another foreign invasion on a small scale physically, but on a mammoth scale culturally. Through a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of the art world stars, 14 of the 36 paintings currently acknowledged to be painted by Johannes Vermeer, including the novel- and movie-inspiring Girl With Pearl Earring (detail shown above), are all within the reach of a train ride between a handful of East Coast museums. For American art lovers on a budget, the idea of Vermeers coming to them rather than the alternative might be an opportunity too good to miss. For international Vermeer followers, the bunching of masterpieces makes an American vacation heaven and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor the train to paradise. For American museums looking to boost attendance numbers and revenue, the Vermeer invasion might be the cure for what ills them. But is the Vermeer invasion too much of a good thing? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Is the U.S.'s Vermeer Invasion Too Much of a Good Thing?"

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Has Norman Rockwell Been Outed?

Any biographer writing about a familiar subject faces the same towering problem—how do I make this person seem new and modern? When writing about an artist such as Norman Rockwell, whose art acts for many as a visual time capsule of early and mid-20th century Americana, that issue becomes doubly difficult to surmount.  In American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, author Deborah Solomon re-evaluates not just Rockwell’s work, which has been unjustly dismissed as kitsch for too long, but also Rockwell himself and the motivations hidden in his art. Among those hidden clues to the man she finds in Rockwell’s paintings, Solomon unearths homoeroticism and a fascination with preadolescent boys that puts the artist in a wholly different light. Although Solomon never slaps the label of homosexual or pedophile on Norman Rockwell, she comes awfully darn close. Those innuendos have infuriated Rockwell’s descendants and raised larger questions about the dangers of modern biography. Has Norman Rockwell been outed? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Has Norman Rockwell Been Outed?"

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

How Art Spiegelman Is More Than Just Maus

Sometimes the toughest shadow to escape is one you cast over yourself. When artist Art Spiegelman began publishing Maus in 1980 in chapter form in the indie comics magazine Raw, which he co-founded with his wife Françoise Mouly, he couldn’t have guessed that his artistic journey into his family’s past and the Holocaust would lead to a PulitzerPrize in 1992. Spiegelman’s career stretched back to the 1960s (and Maus itself began in 1972 with a 3-page comic), but he never experienced the recognition that Maus could bring. In The Jewish Museum, New York’s new exhibition Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective, which runs through March 23, 2014, we see not only what led up to Maus, but also what’s led from it. Co-Mix is as much the story of the man who made Maus as the story of how a comic innovator and visionary escaped the snares of fame and made it out more creatively alive than ever. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "How Art Spiegelman Is More Than Just Maus."

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving Picture's Really About

We all love visual shorthand for our lives, whether it’s the Apple logo for technology or a flag for patriotism. Just as Thomas Nast’s version of Santa Claus endures as the quintessential Christmas image, Norman Rockwell’s classic painting of an American family at Thanksgiving (detail shown above, full picture here) has stood for seven decades as the single image most Americans associate with turkey day. But few Americans know the full story behind (or even the title of) Rockwell’s painting—the political and human rights roots of the text Rockwell aimed at illustrating. As we plan to sit down as a nation and give thanks, it’s important to remember what Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving picture’s really about. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "What Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving Picture's Really About."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

How Rodin Turned Early Neurology into Modern Sculpture

When we look at the sculpture of Auguste Rodin, we can’t help but feel what his figures feel. Every inch of those sculpted bodies “speaks” the language of passion, whether it be of joy, love, yearning, or anguish. In a recent study of Rodin’s The Gates of Hell, art historian Natasha Ruiz-Gómez of the University of Essex links the figures found on those monumental doors (such as Rodin’s Damned Woman; shown above) to images from the work of Jean-Martin Charcot, one of the founders of modern neurology and one of the fathers of the malady known as hysteria. When Rodin looked for a way to break away from the tired tropes of classical sculpture, Ruiz-Gómez suggests, he turned to modern medicine, especially Charcot’s work, which linked psychological and physical states in a way that showed Rodin how to make people see what others feel. By linking art and science, this study opens a new door into Rodin’s art as well as why that art still captures our imagination today. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "How Rodin Turned Early Neurology into Modern Sculpture."

How We Almost Lost JFK Twice

This week we mark the loss half a century ago of President John F. Kennedy. For that generation, Kennedy’s death was the “where were you” moment. For our generation, the “where were you” moment is September 11th. In the middle of all that devastation, few knew that we “lost” JFK in that moment, too. Locked away in a safe in Five World Trade Center were 40,000 negatives of photos of the Kennedy circle by photographer and family insider Jacques Lowe. The trusted photographer of the Kennedys since the late 1950s, Lowe captured many of the iconic pictures of JFK and Camelot in the making. Thanks to the magic of modern technology, Lowe’s photographs have been restored. Those photographs, many never before published, are now united with Lowe’s recollections in The Kennedy Years: A Memoir. Lowe’s words and pictures remind us of how Kennedy became our first modern president in the sense of being the first to take full advantage of the technologies of the day to project a particular image to the public, both for personal political gain and to inspire the nation. We’ll never be able to bring Kennedy himself back to life, but Lowe’s images and recollections raise the Kennedy myth from the dead and allow us to recover the best and the brightest of that moment. Please come over to Picture This at  Big Think to read more of "How We Almost Lost JFK Twice."

Thursday, November 14, 2013

How Raymond Pettibon Puts Words, Pictures, and Anger Back Together

“I could erase an entire life,” thinks a pensive Adolf Hitler as he stares into his mirror in one of the many striking images from the career of artist Raymond Pettibon. In our time, when words mean little and images deceive, Pettibon creates art that rewrites the meaning of words and images erased by modern society by uniting them in fascinating ways that all share a common, simmering anger. How words and pictures have been rent asunder, and how art can undo that divorce, is the subject of a major monograph on the artist titled Raymond Pettibon. A child of the late ‘60s, Pettibon found his groove in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but his art and his message feel just as relevant and important today. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "How Raymond Pettibon Puts Words, Pictures, and Anger Back Together."

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Should Films Be Rated for Sexism?

Movie ratings in the United States today boil down to a few simple elements—sex bombs, f-bombs, and real (fake) bombs. Too much sex or nudity, too much profanity, or too much violence will win your film an R or maybe even an NC-17 rating, which can, depending on the filmmaker’s target audience, spell either doom or big box office. But are these criteria for categorizing films too narrow? Do they give us all we need to know before watching? The movie ratings people in Sweden have added another element—sexism. Not sex, sexism—the use of usually derogatory gender stereotypes. Employing the infamous “Bechdel test,” the Swedish film industry hopes to address what they see as a pervasive problem in movies. But can such a system work for American films and, more importantly, American audiences? Should films be rated for sexism? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Should Films Be Rated for Sexism?"

Friday, November 8, 2013

Munch at 150: More to Scream About?

Munch at 150: More to Scream About?

November 8, 2013, 9:18 AM
If you know only one work of modern art, it’s probably The Scream. More people know that “Mona Lisa” of modern angst than know the name of the artist that painted it over a century ago—Edvard Munch. From 1893 through 1910, Munch painted multiple versions of The Scream in several media, the equivalent of releasing your greatest hit on several albums. No one-hit wonder, however, Munch built a long and screamingly successful career that elevated him to the status of national hero in his native Norway. To mark the sesquicentennial of Munch’s birth this December, Oslo’s Munch Museum launched a massive Munch 150 exhibit, which is accompanied by a brilliantly fresh look in the companion catalog, Edvard Munch: 1863-1944. As much as we’d like to think we know the “real” Munch, much of that Munch belongs to the mythology that arose around the mysterious artist, and much of that Munch mystery marketing came from the man himself. From this reevaluation, Munch arises from the mists of his and others making and appears more creative and more compelling than ever. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Munch at 150: More to Scream About?"

What Is the Legacy of Calvin and Hobbes?

What Is the Legacy of Calvin and Hobbes?

November 5, 2013, 9:10 PM
Is there anyone who doesn’t like Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes? I say “like” and not “liked” in the past tense, because the irrepressible Calvin and his faithful stuffed tiger Hobbes feel as present and lovable now as when Watterson discontinued the comic strip in 1995. If you don’t like Calvin and Hobbes, you probably haven’t read it. Or maybe you don’t have a soul. Either way, the legacy of Calvin and Hobbes, a strip that ended seemingly at its prime and that endures despite its creator’s vehement refusal of licensing and merchandizing, is a powerful one. Mr. Watterson himself has avoided the spotlight ever since, becoming, as one fellow cartoonist calls him, “the Sasquatch of cartoonists.” Dear Mr. Watterson, a new film by Joel Allen Schroeder, traces the big footprints left behind by Watterson not to corner the cartoonist personally, but rather to muse upon the magical hold his characters still claim upon those who read him long ago as well as new generations of readers. It’s a legacy that saddens with the thought of memories gone by, but also gladdens with the hope that there will always be the childlike glories of wonder and imagination. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "What Is the Legacy of Calvin and Hobbes?"

Making the “Divine” Bach Human Again

Making the “Divine” Bach Human Again

November 2, 2013, 7:21 AM
“This is what I have to say about Bach’s life’s work,” Albert Einstein once remarked. “Listen, play, love, revere—and keep your trap shut.” But how can anyone listen to the “divine” music of Johann Sebastian Bach and not wonder about a man now synonymous with classical music and, in many ways, high-brow culture itself? In Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, not only one of the world’s leading conductors, but also a preeminent interpreter of Bach’s music, takes us inside the music—listening, playing, loving, and revering, as Einstein asks—to take us inside the man. Opposing the traditional view of Bach as almost God-like in his musical perfection, Gardiner unearths the imperfections of a very flawed artist who struggled with spiritual faith as well as secular authority. For anyone who’s ever felt intimidated by “BACH,” Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven will guide you into the world of Bach and allow you to experience the compelling humanity (foremost Bach’s own) embedded in every note. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Making the 'Divine' Bach Human Again."

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Who Was the Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa?

“Unimaginable!” roared Parisian newspaper headlines on August 23, 2011, the day after the Louvre discovered that someone had stolen Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Who, everyone asked, took La Joconde, as the French called her? Two years passed before the world learned the thief’s name—Vincenzo Peruggia, an obscure, Italian housepainter. Although Peruggia’s name’s been synonymous with art theft for a century, who Vincenzo was has always remained a mystery. What made him take the painting in the first place? Filmmaker Joe Medeiros tries to solve that puzzle in his charming and eye-opening documentary, The Missing Piece: Mona Lisa, Her Thief, the True Story. Shuttling back and forth between Italy and France, just like Peruggia himself, Medeiros and his crew visit not just the scene of the crime, but also the scenes of Vincenzo’s life before and after the theft in search of the man behind the mask of the thief. The result speaks as much about the power of art as about the way history and its players never truly die. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Who Was the Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa?"
[Many thanks to Joe and Justine Medeiros for providing me with the image above from, press materials related to, and viewing access to The Missing Piece: Mona Lisa, Her Thief, the True Story, now playing in select theaters across America.]

Can Art Teach Patience?

Have you ever noticed how long people look at a painting in a museum or gallery? Surveys have clocked view times anywhere between 10 and 17 seconds. The Louvre estimated that visitors studied the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world, for an astoundingly low average of 15 seconds. Our increasingly online, instantaneous existence accounts for those numbers, obviously. Can we ever again find the patience to look at art as it was meant to be seen? A recent article by Harvard University art history professor Dr. Jennifer Roberts argues not only that art requires patience, but also that it can teach “the power of patience.” Where patience once stood for the helplessness of standing in line at the DMV, patience, in Roberts’ argument, can now stand for empowerment, a “time management” choice that can drive us to look not just at paintings, but at our whole lives. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Can Art Teach Patience?"

Monday, October 21, 2013

Has Reality Finally Caught up to Thomas Pynchon?

“Paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen,” remarks the central character, Maxine Tarnow, of Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge. “You can never have too much.” Pynchon seasons his latest epic voyage into the American psyche with enough paranoia to ward off even the most persistent of vampires, if not his critics. Since winning the 1974 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction for Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon’s watched the trajectory of his stature as a novelist steadily rise, all while he remains grounded in a worldview based in a distrust of systems and a faith in the individual. Bleeding Edge begins just before September 11, 2001, in the calm after the bust of the dotcom boom and before the storm of the terrorist attacks on America and the ensuing and never-ending War on Terror. Pynchon travels back a decade to show us the beginnings of the American age of paranoia, an age that might one day be called the Age of Pynchon. With Bleeding Edge, can we accept that reality has finally caught up to Thomas Pynchon? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Has Reality Finally Caught up to Thomas Pynchon?"

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Were the Cave Paintings Painted by Women?

Art history (and all history, for that matter) has shortchanged women for a long time. A recent article about the authorship of the earliest cave paintings—the earliest images made by human beings—sets the discrimination clock back tens of thousands of years. Archaeologist Dean Snow studied the hand prints found in caves containing prehistoric artwork and found that 75% of the handprints were those of women. This theory, if true, shatters the idea of prehistoric men both hunting animals and exclusively documenting the hunt. With these simple handprints, such as those found in the Argentinian Cueva de las Manos (“Cave of the Hands”) (shown above), these first women artists reach into our time for recognition and question all the assumptions we’ve made (and sometimes still make) about artists based on gender. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Were the Cave Paintings Painted by Women?"

[Image: Cueva de las Manos (“Cave of the Hands”), ca. 7,000 BC. Located in the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina. Image source.]  
[Follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob).]

Can Contemporary Art Become Too Popular?

Contemporary art, believe it or not, is hot. When comedian Stephen Colbert “begs” British graffiti artist Banksy not to make the walls of his studio’s building the next target in his Better Out Than In series (aka, “Banksy Takes Manhattan”) and instantly send property values skyrocketing, you know that contemporary art’s hit the mainstream. But is this popularity a good thing? In a preview of the London Frieze Art Fair, The Financial Times’ Peter Aspden weighs the pluses and minuses of contemporary art’s current status. Admittedly, the popularity of and financial investment in contemporary art beats the alternative, but, as Aspden points out, “it’s hard to deny that in its quest for instant accessibility, contemporary art has lost something of the sense of purpose that it enjoyed when it was genuinely pushing at the boundaries of moral and social consensus.” Aspen believes that the public more willingly swallows contemporary art because “it is so easily consumed and digested.” Should the contemporary art world be choking on its own success? Can contemporary art become too popular? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Can Contemporary Art Become Too Popular?"

[Image: Banksy. This Is My New York Accent ... Normally I Write Like This, 2013. Part of the Better Out Than In series. Located at 508 West 25th Street, Westside, New York City, NY.]
[Follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob).]

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Is David Bowie the Picasso of Our Time?

 When David Bowie played Andy Warhol in the 1996 film Basquiat, he wore Warhol’s actual wig and glasses. Bowie met Warhol in his travels through the art world and even played the song he wrote about him to Warhol, which Andy, of course, didn’t like. In an interview leading up to the exhibition David Bowie is (at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Ontario, Canada, through November 27, 2013), artist Jeremy Deller compares Warhol’s influence on the 1960s to Bowie influence on the 1970s. They both ruled the decade,” Deller claims. “They defined it and they changed it.” However, the artist that Bowie mirrors the most may be another of his favorites, Pablo Picasso. Like Picasso, the single constant in Bowie’s career has been being on the cutting edge of change. Over the years, Bowie’s been Ziggy Stardust, Tao Jones, Halloween Jack, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, and John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.” But Bowie’s always been Bowie through all those incarnations. David Bowie is shows you how he’s been all those things and more, but also what he “is” today—an influential force beyond any single art form, the Picasso of our time. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Is David Bowie the Picasso of Our Time?"

The Darker Side of Magritte, the Kinder, Gentler Surrealist

Is any artist linked inseparably with an article of clothing as René Magritte and the bowler hat? Whether raining down from the sky or with faces obscured by apples, Magritte’s bowler-hatted men have found a home in mainstream visual culture even if Magritte’s own name always hasn’t. Over the years, Magritte’s become the kinder, gentler Surrealist—the anti-Dali who doesn’t roam nightmare landscapes of the psyche full of sex and madness. We know and almost want to know a Magritte as gentle as the Paul Simon song about him, but the reality (like the reality of the song, if you listen closely) is much stranger and darker. The Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, goes back to the beginning of Magritte’s career, before widespread acceptance and Magritte’s own public image making smoothed the rough edges of his Surrealism, which was just as sharp and disturbing as that of Dali, but less obvious for looking so ordinary. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "The Darker Side of Magritte, the Kinder, Gentler Surrealist."

Monday, September 30, 2013

Is Balthus the "Crazy Cat Lady" of Modern Art?

When London’s Tate Gallery asked the French painter Balthus for some personal details to include in a 1968 retrospective exhibition, Balthus replied via telegram: “No biographical details. Begin: Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures. Regards. B.” But how do you look at an exhibition such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations and not ask who this man and artist was? Cats may slink around the paintings, but the real provocation in the show’s title comes from Balthus’ long-controversial portraits of young, pre-teen girls, who pose with a mixture of feline grace and tweenage awkwardness that results in, if not child pornography, at least erotic unease for the viewer. Often cats appear as the only on-canvas observers of these models—wide-eyed voyeurs that might serve as stand-ins for the artist himself, whose life-long fascination with cats remains the one personal detail he freely shared. Is Bathus modern art’s “crazy cat lady”—the eccentric whose harmless obsessions taken to the extreme reveal a darker, psychological truth? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Is Balthus the 'Crazy Cat Lady' of Modern Art?"

Monday, September 23, 2013

Do We Show Our Real Selves While Sleeping?

“Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed/ The dear repose for limbs with travel tired,” William Shakespeare writes in his Sonnet 27. “But then begins a journey in my head/ To work my mind, when body’s work’s expir’d.” Shakespeare knew well that the mind took a journey when the body’s trek through the day ended, but he was wrong about the “body’s work[] expir[ing]” at bedtime. We spend a third of our lives asleep and we shift about for much of that time, as modern sleep study has proven. Researchers now regularly photograph their slumbering subjects, but photographer Ted Spagna pioneered the practice, even before he began partnering with scientists interested in using his images. In Sleep, Spagna’s photographs of himself, family, and friends reveal the hidden world of sleep to satisfy the scientifically curious, but also to enthrall those who recognize the narrative quality of the series of pictures taken throughout the night as well as the penetrating insights of portraits taken when we are at our most vulnerable and, perhaps, most ourselves. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Do We Show Our Real Selves While Sleeping?"

[Image: Ted Spagna. Wave of Sleep, 1980 (detail). Images courtesy of George Eastman House and © The Ted Spagna Project 2013.]
[Many thanks to Rizzoli USA for providing me with a review copy of Sleep, photographs by Ted Spagna, edited by Delia Bonfilio and Ron Eldridge, text by Allan Hobson, MD, foreword by Mary Ellen Mark. Many thanks also to George Eastman House and The Ted Spagna Project for providing me with the image above.]

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How Picasso Found Truth in a Closed Room

One of the first words nixed by postgraduate education is “truth.” Amidst all the deconstructing and linguistic acrobatics, “truth” is just too troublesome and old fashioned. So, imagine my surprise to see the title of art historian T.J. Clark’s newest book, Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. Originally delivered in 2009 as a series of six lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Picasso and Truth shows how Clark rediscovered Pablo Picasso’s struggles with the concept of “truth” in his painting over the course of first half of the 20th century, starting with 1901’s The Blue Room (shown above) and ending with 1937’s Guernica. Using meticulous close reading of numerous paintings in between those two poles and philosophical assists from Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Clark weaves his way through Picasso’s process, nimbly leaps over the landmines of strict biographical interpretation, and arrives finally at a complex, challenging, but coherent concept of how Picasso found truth in a closed room and spent the rest of his life trying to find it again. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "How Picasso Found Truth in a Closed Room."

[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica by T.J. Clark.]

Why Does the NSA Control Center Look Like the Bridge From Star Trek?

Growing up, I fell in love with Science Fiction watching reruns of Star Trek, the version now known to fans as “The Original Series.” The storylines and (then state of the art) special effects hooked me early on, but it was the interplay between William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk, Leonard Nimoy's Spock, and DeForest Kelley's Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy that kept me watching decades later. So many movies and so many spin-off series later, Gene Roddenberry’s brainchild continues to meld with the minds of those who watched it as youngsters. I thought of all that when I read journalist Glenn Greenwald (he of the Edward Snowden NSA revelations) reveal that National Security Agency chief General Keith B. Alexander hired a Hollywood set designer to make his NSA command center, dubbed the “Information Dominance Center,” look like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, complete with oversized view screen, computer stations, captain’s chair, and sliding doors with the signature Star Trek “whoosh” sound. Aside from the impracticality of the idea (and potential tax dollars wasted), what does it mean that the NSA control center looks like Jean-Luc Picard’s workplace (shown above)? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Why Does the NSA Control Center Look Like the Bridge From Star Trek?"

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How (and Why) to Remember 9/11

This year’s incoming class of college students were born in 1995, making them 6 years old when the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001. In a few years, first-year college students will have little to no memory of the “day when everything changed.” For those of us who witnessed those events as adults, the memories feel as close as yesterday: the confusion of initial news reports, the nationwide scramble for some semblance of safety, the seemingly endless television coverage, all capped off by then-President George W. Bush’s address to the nation that evening. On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, the questions of how to remember and why we remember still hold us. The Stories They Tell: Artifacts From the National September 11 Memorial Museum by Clifford Chanin and Alice M. Greenwald helps us consider possible answers to those lingering questions. As Greenwald writes, “The Memorial Museum is defined by four key commitments: preservation, commemoration, education, and inspiration.” Somewhere within those four “commitments” each of us can find our own form of commitment as to how (and why) to remember 9/11. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "How (and Why) to Remember 9/11."

Is This the First “Honest” Bible?

As Penn Jillette said right here on, “Reading the Bible (or the Koran, or the Torah) will make you an atheist.” Of course, just reading the Bible itself—all 66 canonical books (more in some versions)—is something few even attempt. Growing up Catholic, I went with the flow and took it mainly on faith, accepting the portions of revelation portioned out at mass or in school. For those who do take on the challenge of reading the Bible straight through, however, the result can be confusingly mystifying or, as Jillette argues, troublingly demystifying. Written by Mark Russell with illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler, God Is Disappointed in You cuts to the heart of the matter, and sometimes down to the funny bone, to translate the Bible into terms that allow a modern reader to understand the wild, weird, and wonderful “essence” of the Good Book. “It is not my intention to mock the Bible with this book,” Russell writes in his introduction, “nor to endorse it, but merely to present it on its own terms in a way that is accessible and which relays the same sense of fascination I had when I truly discovered the Bible.” Russell and Wheeler create—you decide. In a world full of religious dialogue, is it possible that two comics have finally come up with the first “honest” Bible? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Is This the First “Honest” Bible?"

Do We Learn to Love Bad Art?

Does great art last because it is great or is it great because it lasts? Do works find a place in the canon by familiarity, like a ubiquitous tune you can’t shake, or do they play on through sheer merit? A recent study in the British Journal of Aesthetics by Meskin et al titled “Mere Exposure to Bad Art” examines the effect of “mere exposure” on how people perceive art. After showing students slides of “good” art (landscapes by 19th century British painter John Everett Millais) and “bad” art (works by the trademarked “Painter of Light” himself, Thomas Kinkade) at differing frequencies, the researchers suggest that looking at bad art more often makes us hate it even more (or so they hope). But is it still possible for us to learn to love bad art? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Do We Learn to Love Bad Art?"

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Julia Margaret Cameron: Pioneer of Modern Glamour Photography?

“It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude,Julia Margaret Cameron’s daughter told her while presenting her with her birthday gift in 1863 while Mr. Cameron and sons were away. Forty-eight-year-old Julia took the clunky box camera in her hands and soon took to her new hobby with more energy than expertise (at least at first). Using her connections to famous friends, Julia Margaret Cameron became the all-seeing eye of Victorian celebrity, recording notable faces for posterity. But, as can be seen in the exhibition Julia Margaret Cameron, which runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through January 5, 2014, Cameron’s camera created images strikingly similar to modern glamour photography—equal parts documentation and deception. Is Julia Margaret Cameron a pioneer of modern glamour photography? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Julia Margaret Cameron: Pioneer of Modern Glamour Photography?"

[Image: Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815–1879). Christabel, 1866. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1941. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (41.21.26).]
[Many thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to Julia Margaret Cameron, which runs through January 5, 2014.]